Activated charcoal, a trendy ingredient that's turned everything from ice cream to cocktails a dark shade of black, has likely popped up on your radar for its shining health benefits as of late. It's a black powder made of bone char, coconut shells, sawdust, and coal thought to do everything from clear skin to reduce bloating.
While it's been touted as a detoxifying agent, it may actually do more harm than good. According to Sophie Medlin, RD, activated charcoal can detoxify the body in emergency situations when a person has consumed poison or overdosed on medication, but its everyday health benefits may be wildly misinterpreted, Popular Science reports.
Medlin explains that charcoal has the ability to bind to poison in the gastrointestinal tract, which stops it from being absorbed into the bloodstream and allows for toxins to be passed out of the body naturally. However, charcoal will not only bind to poison, but also to vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants found in food. That means when you drink a fruit or vegetable juice that's been treated with a "shot" of charcoal, you're probably not actually getting any of the vitamins found in the juice to begin with.
Charcoal can also bind with medications, rendering them less effective and can cause nausea and constipation, Medlin explains. Finally, she debunks the idea that activated charcoal can help your body detox from alcohol or a big meal. "Activated charcoal will only bind with whatever particles are in your stomach or intestines at the time that you take it," she says. So by the time you consume activated charcoal, your body will have likely already absorbed the substances you're wishing to get rid of into the bloodstream.
If this information wasn't enough to turn you off from the latest health fad, activated charcoal has been banned in New York City since 2016, according to Eater New York. However, the Food and Drug Administration has been cracking down on restaurants that serve food and drinks that contain the ingredient just in the past few weeks. The bottom line: While many still think that activated charcoal holds countless health benefits, you may want to rethink your next scoop of trendy charcoal ice cream.
European Food Safety Authority. Scientific Opinion on the Substantiation of Health Claims Related to Activated Charcoal and Reduction of Excessive Intestinal Gas Accumulation (ID 1938) and Reduction of Bloating (ID 1938) Pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006. EFSA J. 2011;9(4):2049. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2011.2049
Popular Science. Activated Charcoal is Showing Up Everywhere - Here are Four Reasons to Avoid It. June 2018.
Eater New York. Surprise, NYC Apparently Has a Ban on Black Foods with Activated Charcoal. June 2018.